Like a small child, I eagerly gather around the storytellers of Lesvos. The old-timers who were here before the media circus arrived. Helpers who roamed the island a year ago, but you could be forgiven for thinking I’m talking in decades. Things move quickly, this is not the same crisis it was a week ago, let alone a year. The stories they tell talk of desperation, lack of infrastructure. Packs of two or three rescuers hauling in boat after boat unaided. Missions waist-deep in silt handing out 100 meals to 10 times the number of begging, faceless arms reaching up from swamps of mud. Each day brings a new way to experience hell.
I’ve landed here at a pivotal point in the evolution of this refugee hot spot. A time when the media attention brings volunteers by the boatload, where NGO’s meet and plan and structure things on a daily basis. Every moment I exist here I see new signs of organisation taking hold, things beginning to integrate.
But they are still dying. Drowning at the hands of the Turkish coastguards by the boatload. No amount of organisation or NGO integration on this side is going to change what is happening on the other side of that invisible line dotted through the Aegean.
This morning Lilian shared:
“33 people drowned tonight. You probably won’t hear of their deaths. 3 boats left Turkey yesterday evening and only 1 made it to Lesvos. The other 2 were intercepted by the Turkish police who slashed the boats with knives and used a hose to fill them with water. Everyone drowned.
Apparently this is normal.
The EU is investing €3billion for Turkey to “close its border” with Greece. I now realise what that really means. Borders don’t physically exist.
A man broke down crying in the medical tent a short while ago, he was on the boat that made it across. He watched the other boats sink. He begged for this information to be passed on to the rest of the world. He begged for the lives of those lost to be counted.”
Border control takes on a different meaning in my life these days.
My own story of Lezvos tells another tale of evolving tragedies. I’ve been observing through endless coordination meetings how the landscape of a disaster changes through NGO integration and appearances. Once a week, often more than that, I find myself perched around a boardroom table. Official representatives of the UNHCR control powerpoint slides on the second floor of a rather official hotel. My first visit to this meeting began with directions to find the large hotel with the flags outside, follow down the side, past the pool then up the spiral staircase. A different world from muddy camping spots and half-sunk rubber boats.
These meetings are part of the reason that the outlook is slowly shifting at this end. Things are changing, people are integrating. The days of too many volunteers running around the shorelines like headless chickens, desperate to adorn baby’s shivering toes with tiny socks, is coming to an end. Some order is being restored to the chaos on Lezvos.
Over the summer a call was put out. HELP. We need volunteers, this is too much. So they came, in droves. A new problem emerged, we had too many people in some places, at some times, but still a deficit in others. With so many different organisations mixed with large handfuls of independent volunteers, there was no central system to tell people where to go or what to do. Distribution of people was unbalanced, things have needed to change. Now the challenge is to organise these helpers from around the world into a structure that is not only useful, but balanced. Newcomers are pulled to the drama of the shorefront, the feel-good experience of pulling babies out of sinking boats, and it has become everyones job to highlight the importance of other operations. How desperately we need to clean up the beaches, wash the clothes and sort the donations. The coast guard are taking care of the boats for now, but whilst you stand staring at an empty horizon rising over the sea, we have hungry mouths to feed back at the camps.
The SOS is shifting to the other side. Questions are coming up around how to educate refugees before they leave Turkey. So many are naive, being sold extravagant stories by slimy people smugglers. Promised nice boats, safe travel, just hand over all your money. There are small things that could make a big difference if only they knew what they were getting into. “Please, people – wear emergency blankets under your clothing” I want to run over there and shout in the streets. “The life jackets – they aren’t real!” they need to know. However, with the strong hold that the smugglers have over that community, it is risky business and a message that is going to be difficult to pass on.
A friend of mine, Vanda Smrkovski recently explored Izmir, confirming all my fears about uneducated refugees just beginning their jouney
“I ask the waiter for a small plastic bag. I take off my right boot, slip the bag over my sock, and show the Iraqi guys. “Please, find some plastic bags, cover your socks. It will keep your feet dry when your shoes get wet,” I say with urgency. They seem surprised that their feet could ever get wet.”
As always, life here on Lezbos continues to pass by in a series of soul crushing vignettes.